THE NEW CRITERION, June 2017
On the 2017 Met Gala, “Frieze New York” & “TEFAF New York Spring.”
When it comes to the life of art, there may be nothing less gala than the Met Gala, or at least what this annual boondoggle at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has become. The scandal of this year’s iteration should serve as a sobering wake-up call for the increasingly besotted priorities of too many American museums, including our greatest institutions.
If you have not heard of the Met Gala, do not worry. You were not invited. Since 1995, on the first Monday of every May, the Metropolitan has handed its keys over to Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine and the artistic director of Condé Nast. Here her purported aim has been to raise funds for the museum’s Costume Institute—I’m sorry, make that the “Anna Wintour Costume Center.” Her lording over the gala’s invite list has become notorious and the subject of a documentary called The First Monday in May.
Of course, the potential conflicts of interest that exist between Wintour’s commercial concerns and her museum trusteeship are blatant. The specter that she has conjured up with her gala has followed priorities far beyond fundraising and certainly beyond the realm of art. Along the way these extra-artistic interests have risen up from the Institute’s basement galleries to infect not only the museum’s spaces but also its institutional tenor, and by extension the tenor of American museums at large.
Like much else in the world of art, the Met Gala and the Costume Institute itself have become unrecognizable deformations from the Institute’s founding and the event’s inception in 1946. Consider that for nearly twenty years, from 1979 to 1995, the gala was helmed by the singular society doyenne Patricia Buckley. During this time the Institute mounted exhibitions such as “Fashions of the Hapsburg Era” (1979–1980), “Victorian Dress 1837–1877” (1988–1989), and “The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire” (1989–1990). The historical programming more than fit, so to speak, the seriousness of the institution that presented it.
The Wintour era has wrought, by contrast, “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy” and “Punk: Chaos to Couture.” Even beyond its superficial, contemporary turn, Wintour’s Costume Institute has exposed the museum to the predations of celebrity culture. Worse still, the museum as a whole, a once-protected precinct of our cultural inheritance, has learned to revel in Hollywood’s demotic attention. “The Met is a place that you consider very very correct, very formal,” the fashion editor André Leon Talley explains in the Wintour documentary. “Anna has taken that out of the mix.”
The 2017 Met Gala became the apotheosis of this transformation. With the pop singer Katy Perry serving as the year’s honorary hostess, the hordes of bold-faced names, amply stocked with Jenners and Kardashians, marched up the museum’s Fifth Avenue steps and made a public mockery of the institution. “The celebrities were like animals . . . acting like they were at the Playboy Mansion!” one informant explained to Radar magazine. “Some didn’t even know it was a museum. They thought it was an event space with old stuff brought in to make it look like Egypt!” Many of the attendees, clearly uncertain of their surroundings, came to loiter in the museum restrooms. Here they sprawled out across the floors, spilled drinks, smoked cigarettes, and took “selfie” shots in the mirrors, which they disseminated through social media.
Some may perceive such spectacle as a tolerable distraction—even a welcome frivolity for an overly stuffy and off-putting institution. I fear the pantomime is far more anti-civilizational. It is a takeover—a commercial-grade, mass-culture affront to an institution held in disdain. Guarded by a phalanx of bodyguards, these latter-day vandals take barbarous license amidst the greatest artifacts of history. They smoke. They fornicate. They sprawl across the floors in mockery of the art around them, merely to focus on themselves. And all the while they record their debauchery on social media for millions of fanatics to emulate their cultural annihilation.
There have been many cringe-worthy moments during the reign of Thomas Campbell, the disgraced director of the Metropolitan Museum who departs this month. Perhaps the curator once dubbed “Tapestry Tom” thought he could take a major carpet ride to new money and popular adulation. Instead he opened the floodgates and drowned his institution in ridicule and debt while forsaking his scholars and curators. There should have been only one response for any proper museum steward to this year’s Met Gala: to sweep the trash out of the galleries, and to keep Wintour’s damage deposit with the suggestion never to return. Short of that, Anna Wintour’s Met Gala should be interred alongside Tom Campbell’s ignominious career.
The sixth annual art fair known as Frieze New York opened on the same week as the Met’s inanities, but seemed a world apart.1 My first thought upon entering Frieze’s elevating, light-filled tent was how the value of seeing, as opposed to seducing, has been abdicated by many museums to be taken up by commercial galleries, which in turn increasingly coalesce around these quasi-institutional art fairs.
Six years ago I was bullish over the first stateside Frieze, a remarkable art encampment on New York’s Randall’s Island at the confluence of the Harlem and East Rivers by the Hell Gate to Long Island Sound. The setting alone is a stunning retreat. Of course, many of us already know this island to be that which exists beneath the roadbed of the Triborough Bridge. There was a time I played after-school sports beneath its dingy overpasses, and I attended a grungy rock festival there in 1994. But one of the surprises of Frieze is how Randall’s Island has been recently transformed into a bucolic sanctuary in the heart of the city with flowering paths and woodpeckers tapping on trees. The first year I took a ferry there. More recently I walked across a footbridge from Manhattan.
Admittedly over the past few years I grew somewhat weary of Frieze’s formula of trendy, transposed eateries and art as lifestyle retreat, mixed with some showboating and the dumbing down of the art on view. Access to Frieze has become increasingly daunting, with inscrutable online directions, unreliable transportation, and the feeling during storms that the whole operation may become a runaway bouncy castle. But this year seemed different, at least once the clouds parted, and far less frivolous—a place set apart, and well engineered, for the contemplation of art in exile.
In 2012 the architecture firm SO-IL designed the Frieze tent from pre-fabricated rental components to snake along the edge of the Harlem River overlooking Manhattan for more than a quarter mile. Made of white translucent material, supplemented by minimal artificial illumination, its 225,000 square feet are awash in natural light. The visual effects can be uncanny, cooling colors and bathing both painting and sculpture in an indirect, northern-like light.
This year many of the two-hundred-plus galleries, brought together from thirty-one countries by Frieze’s London-based curatorial team, took best advantage of these light-filled surroundings not just to give us something to look at, but also something to see, with minimal labels and misdirection. Alexander Gray Associates, with a prominent booth by the southern entrance, singled out a late geometric abstraction by the painter Jack Tworkov called Triptych (Q3-75 #1) (1975), a contemplative fugue of gridded form and spontaneous brushwork. (This Chelsea gallery, it should be noted, is currently showing a survey of the artist Betty Parsons, a central figure of twentieth-century art better known for her singular dealership of the Abstract Expressionists.)
Both David Zwirner and Sculpture Center exhibited pas-de-deux sculptures by Carol Bove of scrap metals punctuated by urethane dots. The paintings of Henry Taylor were released from the circus of the Whitney Biennial to show to best effect at Blum & Poe. The Symbolist abstractions of Gabriel Lima were new to me at the Portuguese gallery Múrias Centeno. I liked the worn paint textures of Marina Rheingantz at the Brazilian gallery Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, while the bold lines of James Nares’s abstractions at New York’s Paul Kasmin directed us to the American road. London’s October gallery testified to the modernist innovations of contemporary African art, especially Romuald Hazoumè’s Benin-style masks crafted from gasoline canisters.
There was some regrettable selfie bait, in particular Karl Holmqvist’s sign paintings at Gavin Brown’s “Enterprise” instructing fair-goers to “Hug a Hooker!” Yet these were anomalies in a fair that dedicated much of its real estate to its selection of “Spotlight” galleries exhibiting solo shows of work created exclusively in the last century, which included many of the best booths in the fair: Judith Linhares’s dreamscapes at San Francisco’s Anglim Gilbert, Paul Feeley’s color-forms at New York’s Garth Greenan, and, in particular, Alfred Leslie’s stark portraiture at New York’s Bruce Silverman.
A depression in interest for European antiquities may say as much about the state of the European past as it does of the European economy. Founded nearly thirty years ago in Holland, TEFAF Maastricht has long been a preeminent art fair featuring an advertised “7,000 years of art history,” but one particularly known for its selection of Old Masters and antiquities. Looking to expand from Maastricht while educating an American collecting public that may know little beyond the latest Jeff Koons, TEFAF came stateside last fall with a fair that transformed the Park Avenue Armory into an ethereal treasury of art history.
I wish I could stay so enthusiastic for tefaf’s spring edition, which returned to the Armory over “Frieze Week” to exhibit ninety-three galleries showing modern and contemporary art and design.2
There were some highlights: the New York gallery Hans P. Kraus Jr., dealing in the “old masters of photography,” as always showed a remarkable selection of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century prints. Bernard Goldberg featured scenes by Thomas Hart Benton from his “American Historical Epic” of 1924 through 1927. David Zwirner smartly positioned Josef Albers next to the equal (if not superior) work of his wife, Anni Albers. London’s James Butterwick offered a selection of Russian and Ukrainian modernists, and Lisson featured the Cuban-American painter Carmen Herrera, while Bergamin & Gomide focused on South American modernism.
But overall TEFAF New York Spring was a letdown, a largely directionless retread of other modern fairs underscored by an often garish arrangement of work. Once again TEFAF included jewelers and other such retailers in the mix, which gave its fair an aura of the international departures terminal “duty free.” The selection also leaned awkwardly towards postwar European painting, and I can only gather that a memo went out suggesting exhibitors display every sliced-up Lucio Fontana canvas in inventory, rendering the fair both a whodunit slasher and a vagina monologue. Perhaps there’s a future for TEFAF New York Spring. For now I will simply look forward to the opening of TEFAF’s next revelatory fall production of Old Masters.